Waaaaay back in the early 90’s, AC/DC’s Highway To Hell was the second CD I had ever purchased (Eric Clapton’s Unplugged being the first) and it was a bit of a gamble for me to pick up. While I was devouring the Who Made Who and Back In Black cassette tapes I had recently bought at the time; I knew very little from this Bon Scott character. The only tune I heard their former lead singer who had passed away was “Ride On” which was stuffed at the end of side one of Who Made Who.
I still remember sitting on the living room floor and spinning the album on my parent’s CD player for the first time. As the tracks rolled on by with the headphones planted firmly on my head, the album quickly leaped ahead of everything else I had heard before. Bon’s style delivered AC/DC with a different flavour. This was to become my favourite rock album of all time. Nothing has passed it yet.
Producer “Mutt” Lange’s involvement on Highway has certainly has been overstated enough, but let’s give credit where it is due. Mutt’s influence is all over this record.
Is there any rock band that holds off on the bass as the groove builds better than AC/DC? I think not. It had been done before on pre-Mutt tunes like “Riff Raff”, but every track on Highway – EVERY track – builds up slowly. (I might give you that the “Girls Got Rhythm” fires from the start, but even it takes a few bars before the bass kicks in.) I think Mutt really tuned into what this band did well and capitalized on it.
He did an amazing job with mixing the vocals. Bon’s voice sounds more melodic than before; while the backing vocals from both rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams are layered in a way to make average-y singers sound great.
Lead guitarist Angus Young credits Mutt with giving him a better direction with his solos; making them tight and concise. Perhaps it is a bad idea if you are wanting to be a show-off rock god, but a good idea if you want a radio hit.
While Mutt did tighten the screws on the band’s studio sound; it would not have meant much if the band themselves had not stepped up their song writing game.
Despite its title, Highway To Hell is a jovial party album. I love ’em all, but the band’s previous albums are loaded with tunes about getting knocked down, or how “bad” they are, or how they will be big one day. Highway To Hell is about having fun WHILE making it big. AC/DC had always wanted to be the band on the upswing and now they finally sounded like it.
“Walk All Over You” smacks you in the face with its opening line:
“Outta my way I’m a running high”
Bon confidently satisfies his lady friend during the sleazy “Touch Too Much”. He puts a his foot down on an abusive relationship in “Beating Around The Bush”. He delivers the goods with pride while being pulled in every direction in “If You Want Blood”. And even while “Shot Down In Flames” is focused on getting rejected, Bon takes it in stride as he pursues another lady instead of dwelling on the one he lost.
The album’s darkest tune by far is the closer, “Night Prowler”. Although its lyrics are chilling as Bon describes himself sneaking into a woman’s room, think of how he frames it with the chorus. I’m YOUR Night Prowler. As I’m YOURS. I think he has permission to be this lady’s midnight caller. The song would have been really dark if it was “I’m A Night Prowler”. And even if you felt the song was getting too serious, Bon adds a little “Shazbot, Nanu Nanu” at the end. A call to Robin Williams’ character on the popular ’70s TV comedy sitcom, Mork and Mindy.
I think this optimism is why I like Highway best. I have no clue if it was the missing ingredient that previously held them back from breaking into the North American charts, but something about Highway did earn them broader appeal. The title track was what they needed to get a spot onto the US Charts (peeking at #47) and allowed the album to reach the top 20 (peeking at #17). Highway introduced many to AC/DC for the first time, and if a new comer asked me where they should start listening, I’d tell them right here.
As an AC/DC album, 5/5.
Compared to everything else, Amaze Balls/5.
PS: Shazbot! Nanu, Nanu
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